“Wake up, stupid.”
I opened my eyes slowly. A human-Controller scowled down at me. Her human host’s long yellow hair tickled my face.
“Aviss!” I screamed, jolting upward into a sitting position. Aviss yelped and jumped back.
“What was that for?” she snapped, once she’d recovered from her shock.
“You—the labs—the Andalites—I thought you were dead!” I cried.
“Well, you were wrong. As usual.” Aviss did not appear impressed. I looked around frantically, trying to make sense of everything. Behind me, I could see the ruins of the ship. The cave was no longer dark, its ceiling burst wide open by the Shredder beam.
“Where’s Elit?” I asked.
“Over there,” said Aviss, gesturing towards the ship. If I strained, I could see a shadowy figure lying on the ground, just as I had been. I scrambled to my feet and hurried over.
“He’s not dead,” said Aviss, watching with disinterest as I shook our brother’s shoulders. “But I can’t get him up. I think he got hit harder than you did.”
“The Andalites?” I asked, turning to look at her. “Do you know—?”
“They haven’t come down into the atmosphere, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t know if they’re still in orbit, though. What happened?”
“What do you mean, what happened?” I asked. “How did you escape? Why weren’t you in the labs when the first Shredder hit?”
Aviss rolled her eyes and made a disgusted noise. “Because I was down in transport, getting ready for the field expedition!” she said. “You warriors think you’re the center of the universe, don’t you? The technicians panicked and launched the pod when the beam hit. Almost all of my equipment was still on the ship, the idiots!”
“Did you find any other survivors?” I asked. Elit still wasn’t waking up, but I couldn’t see any serious injuries on him.
“No. But I didn’t look. I’m not going into the rubble, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s dangerous. There’s falling objects. And dust; my host has allergies. And…my leg hurts.”
“Anything else?” I asked dryly.
“Yes.” Aviss looked at me with hope in her face. “I’m hungry and I already ate all my ration bars. Let’s find some of the natives and take their food.”
“Why don’t you just wait there,” I said. “I’m going to see if I can find anyone else.”
Aviss liked that plan, so I went ahead and began to pick my way through the rubble. I could tell right away that I wouldn’t be able to get far inside the ship—the stone of the ceiling had smashed what the Shredder hadn’t. In a sick way, I was grateful. I wouldn’t have to root through mountains of the dead.
I honestly wasn’t expecting to find anyone left alive. Or if I did, he’d be clinging to life and begging for a mercy shot that I could not give because I had no weapon. Still, even knowing the state that any survivors might be in, I was completely unprepared to see Vella lying in the middle of the floor, very slowly dragging himself towards nowhere in particular.
He was badly injured, and there was a long streak of green Hork-Bajir blood that marked the progress he had made down the crumpled hall.
“Vella!” I cried. He tilted his head and squinted up at me.
“Emiki?” he muttered.
I should have been angry, furious, even vengeful. I should have laughed at his pain and left him to bleed out over the next few hours. But looking down at the Sub-Visser’s pathetic second in command, I just felt tired. It was like someone had put up a wall between me and my emotions, and I could not access them. Was this shock? I supposed it must be.
“Come on,” I sighed, and I leaned down to help him. I might have been a little more rough than necessary, but he didn’t die on the way. I told myself that it was already more than he deserved.
When I came back out into the cavern, Elit was conscious. Even better, Aviss was setting up a portable Kandrona that she must have had in her shuttle.
“Who is that, Emiki?” asked Elit, jumping up to his feet. “Is he—Vella? You saved Vella?”
“He was the only one I could get to,” I said. “I’m going back in, though—”
“See if you can find a toolkit,” muttered Aviss, tinkering with the Kandrona.
“Right,” said Elit, staring down at Vella with murder in his eyes.
“Or maybe you should check,” I said. “I’ll stay here and keep an eye on…things.”
Elit gave me a look, but he didn’t argue. He vanished into the ruins of the ship, grumbling to himself. I knew it wasn’t a long-term solution to a very big problem, but I was too tired to worry about it. Incompetent and self-serving as Vella could be, another set of hands could be the difference between life and death out here.
My gut twisted as I realized he already had been the difference between life and death once today.
Hot anger rushed up to my throat, and I turned away from where Vella lay on the stone floor of the cavern, staring up at the sky.
I thought of the sub-Visser who had been my mentor. I thought of my fellow soldiers, who had died blissfully ignorant in the pools. I thought of Elit’s friends on the ship’s security team, laid-back and boisterous in the way that soldiers were not.
I thought of the crew, the technicians and engineers who I had seen every single day of my assignment but never thought about twice until they’d proved their worth to me a hundred times over in their final moments.
I thought of Mitti and a soft cry escaped my throat. I’d barely known her name. I only recognized her at all because she had an Ongachic host and sometimes played the stringboard on her off-shift. She’d been so frightened, but she’d pulled herself together and saved us all.
Only to have her victory wrested from her by our idiot Second in Command.
Suddenly, I understood Elit’s need to cut Vella’s throat. I didn’t do it, though. I just sat on the ground and drew designs in the dust with my wrist-blade until my pool-brother returned with his arms full of scavenged supplies, but no survivors.
After that, we ventured out into the canyon to get a feel for the landscape. It took about ten minutes for us to agree that it was far too hot in our present location. So we squeezed into Aviss’ shuttle and flew until we found one of the grassy areas that the probe had sent us images of. We harvested bark from the nearby trees, and Elit found more ration bars for Aviss under one of the seat cushions.
“So what are we going to do?” I asked eventually. “That Kandrona won’t last forever.”
“I see no reason not to carry on with the mission,” said Aviss.
“That’s because you’re an idiot,” muttered Elit.
“Shut up. Listen. We can’t assume that help is coming, and we can’t fly my tiny little craft all the way home. We need to borrow technology from the dominant species around here.” Aviss looked pleased with herself for coming to this conclusion.
“The singers?” I asked, thinking of the transmission that had played on the bridge just moments before the Andalites appeared.
“Yes. No. No.” Aviss shook her head. “From the data I’ve collected, it appears there are two sentient races on this planet. They look to be of the same genus, and if I had to guess I’d say they only diverged fairly recently—‘recently’ in evolutionary terms, anyway.”
“So, which ones do we want for hosts?” asked Elit.
“The Roson,” said Aviss firmly. “They have large cities and better technology, if the images I’m getting are anything to judge by. Unfortunately, very little of their data is in Galard—which I assume they picked up from Skrit Na traders, because I see no evidence of them having spacefaring technology.”
“Alright, let’s find some Roson,” said Elit, getting up.
“Now?” I asked skeptically.
“A gigantic energy beam just ripped up one of their natural landmarks,” pointed out Elit. “Someone’s going to go and investigate. It’s just a question of when.”
“That’s your job, then,” I said. “Catch one if you can, and we’ll see if we can infest it. In the meantime, Aviss, show me what other supplies we have.”
I wasn’t really expecting Elit to come back with something. I was hoping he’d be able to burn off some of his anger by running around the canyons while Aviss began the arduous process of translating the Roson language. She connected to their public data-sharing network from the ship’s computer and spent the rest of the afternoon muttering to herself about her own brilliance.
But a few hours later, when the sun was beginning to sink low in the sky, Elit returned to us. He was covered in the pale orange dust of the canyon rocks. And he was not alone. Slung over his shoulder like a pack was something large and shiny and alive.
It was not a bad-looking creature. It had a long abdomen, a short neck, and a triangular head with rather large eyes. It stood on six legs, though it looked like the front set could be used as hands. It was a very, very soft yellow color, and I realized that the gleam I was seeing was the shine of a hard exoskeleton.
I stared. I think my mouth fell open.
“Oh, good, you found one!” said Aviss, shoving past me. “Does it speak Galard? Is that a male? I think it’s male. Is it conscious? You didn’t hit him, did you?”
“Maybe. A little. Maybe,” said Elit, not meeting Aviss’ eyes. The Roson’s legs kicked futilely at his captor, but he had no more luck than I’d had when trying to escape Elit’s grasp.
“Who’s going to infest it?” I asked.
“Not me,” said Aviss briskly.
“Make Vella do it. His host can’t run away,” said Elit. This was a pretty good point, so I let him hold the Roson by Vella’s Hork-Bajir ear until we all saw his Yeerk body move from his original host to the new one.
Vella took a minute to orient himself. He seemed to be having a little bit of trouble, which was very strange. He tripped over his own legs and flailed wildly before Elit finally picked him up and placed him on his feet again.
“Well?” I asked once he seemed to be calmer.
“It’s…not bad…” said Vella tentatively. “Feels…a little tingly…”
“Good,” said Aviss briskly. “Now that you know the language, we can—”
But I never found out what we could do, because Vella very quickly and very suddenly raised one of his front hands to his head. He made a funny sound that almost sounded like a whimper of pain.
“Vella?” I asked.
“Burning…” mumbled Vella. He lost his balance and crashed to his many knees. He let out a cry of pain and began to thrash wildly from side to side. We all stepped back and stared in horror. Flecks of gold fluid splashed from his ears and landed everywhere.
He died screaming.
When it was all over, when the last of the tremors had gone from the dead Roson’s body, the three of us stared at the corpse in utter shock.
“I wish to retract my previous assessment,” said Aviss at last.
We dragged the body into the shuttle so Aviss could perform an autopsy on the dead Roson. Or rather, I performed an autopsy while Aviss hovered behind me and screamed ten conflicting instructions at once.
“Why don’t we just trade hosts?” I snapped at last. I was not exactly thrilled that my blades were being used as surgical equipment.
“Don’t be stupid, Emiki,” said Aviss. “Now make a small inci—I said small—no, not there! There. Yes. There. No! Why are you so useless?”
Elit caught my eye and grinned at me from his spot in the doorway.
“Yes, like that. Yesss. Good, now stop, stop! Alright.” She nudged me aside and reached in to peel away a chunk of the Roson’s skull. I got a good look at its brain—with Vella’s half-dissolved body still attached.
“Hm,” said Aviss. “That’s different.”
Usually, Yeerks leave their host’s bodies when the host dies. It’s an instinctive reaction, and after a victory there’s always teams sent out to look for surviving Yeerks, usually no more than a few meters from the dead host’s ear.
“What caused that?” I asked. Aviss reached in and very carefully removed Vella’s body from the Roson’s brain. Whole portions of his body had been eaten away, as if they’d been splashed with acid.
“Chemical make-up of the brain is…less than ideal…” murmured Aviss, more to herself than me. “And the veins on the neural network probably interfered with his motor skills…”
“In Galard, please,” said Elit, leaning on the doorframe.
“The Roson are completely unsuited for infestation.” Aviss looked up, devastated. “I have actually discovered a species worse than the Taxxons. I think I’m going to die of shame.”
“You didn’t discover anything,” snapped Elit.
“Yes I did!” retorted Aviss, clenching her fleshy fists and waving them in the air. “We didn’t know what they were until me, did we?”
“Well, maybe, but don’t say it like you invented them,” said Elit crossly. “There was a whole team of scientists on board with you.”
“If you’re going to be rude, you can get off my shuttle,” said Aviss, putting her nose in the air.
“Your shuttle!” cried Elit.
“My shuttle! I flew it here! It’s mine!”
“That’s strange, because I’m pretty sure it says ‘property of the Yeerk Empire’ on the paperwork—”
“Mine!” shrilled Aviss. I wondered why the Empire had seen fit to give the most insane Yeerks the most insane host species.
I decided to stop the fight before it turned physical.
“We need to rest,” I said, edging myself between the two. “It’s going to be dark soon. Let’s get rid of all this stuff—”
“Medical waste,” said Aviss.
“—and try to get some sleep.”
I think they were too exhausted to really argue, so Aviss folded out a cot and Elit and I found empty spots on the floor so we would sleep in the Hork-Bajir way.
My host fell asleep quickly, and if he had any dreams, I didn’t notice.
Aviss awoke the next morning angry and poorly-rested and demanding something called ‘coffee’, claiming that if her host didn’t get a cup of it, she would surely die.
I had trouble mustering up any pity for her, even when Elit jokingly presented her with a generous slab of palest-grey tree bark and she responded by striking Elit on his shoulder and slicing open her own hand.
Once we got her bandaged up, we came to the unanimous agreement that it was time to approach the Roson for help. Aviss found a nearby town on her console that I thought looked promising.
“And you want to what, just…wander in?” asked Aviss, as we all gathered around the viewscreens and watched our destination drawn closer and closer.
“Not wander,” I said. “Wander implies we’re lost.”
“We are lost,” Elit said.
“We are going to walk normally,” I said. “Like we’re in charge of the situation.”
“We’re not,” Elit said.
“They don’t know that, alright?” I snapped. I’d been trying so hard not to be drawn into my siblings’ ridiculousness, but I was slipping.
We left the shuttle on the outskirts of the town and walked the rest of the way. The town was actually quite pretty, with short pale grass growing everywhere. There were a few narrow paths where I could see wheel tracks, but not too much more. The dwellings were elevated, and it looked like the only way to reach them was by climbing a series of ladders.
It didn’t take long for the first Roson to spot us. He looked shocked to see us, but scurried off before I could ask him any questions. I looked up, and noticed big, brightly-colored eyes watching us from the houses.
We walked a little further until we reached what looked like an open-air market. Roson were bickering and trading with one another in their language. But when they saw us, they all went quiet and just stared.
“Uh, greetings,” I said, in loud and slow Galard. “Is there anyone I could speak to?”
The marketplace was deathly silent.
“No?” I said. “I…I can come back later?”
Behind me, Aviss made a mocking sound. I turned to glare at her, but one of the Roson finally mustered up all his courage and inched forward. I looked at him.
“You brought the beam of light from the sky?” he asked tentatively.
“The beam?” I said. “No. That beam was an Andalite weapon.”
The mention of a weapon sent a murmur through the crowd. So they did speak Galard.
“We need help,” I said. “Our ship was destroyed, and we have no way to contact our homeworld.” The Roson still looked mistrustful. “We just want to get home,” I added.
There was some more muttering. Then a female Roson stepped forward.
“We can take you to Ivva Ji Rostanye. He is governor of our town,” she offered. “Maybe he can help you.”
“Thank you,” I said. I kicked Elit, and he muttered a thank you as well. I didn’t bother trying to make Aviss be polite.
The female Roson led us, and we were followed by the entire population of the market, who apparently had nothing better to do. Someone might have taken pictures of us, but I was unsure of the technology. We picked up even more stragglers as we walked. If the governor had looked out his window, he would probably have thought a mob of rebels were coming to storm his house.
A few guards met us in the Governor’s courtyard. They let the Roson woman and us past, and did a rather good job of dispersing the crowd, who were disappointed that they wouldn’t get to see the action. We watched as she scaled the ladder to the Governor’s front door with unnatural ease, a pair of paper-thin wings flaring open behind her to help her balance.
I felt a deep regret that I would never know one of these creatures as my host.
Inside, the dwelling was warm and the lighting was dim. Though I couldn’t see anyone, I could hear people talking to each other in adjacent rooms, and I wondered if they were family or staff or both.
Lanterns cast a golden glow on the walls, but when I examined them closer, I realized they were artificial. I ran my hand over the wall. It was not wood, my Hork-Bajir host informed me immediately. It was synthetic.
Of course they have technology, I reminded myself. How else would we have picked up their transmissions?
The Roson woman traded us off to someone else. He introduced himself as the Governor’s personal assistant, and promised that Ji would be out to see us in a moment.
We were brought into one of the side parlors, and Aviss wasted no time in complaining that there were no chairs. There were, however, many large pillows strewn around the floor. The assistant apologized to Aviss, even though I told him not to bother, and left us.
When he closed the door behind him, I think I heard the faintest click. I didn’t have time to check, though, because I had to stop Elit from knocking over a display case. Then Governor Ji came in.
He didn’t look that different from the others we’d seen already today. But trailing behind him was someone else. Something else. She looked very much like the Roson, but she was not a Roson. She was at least two feet shorter, her body looked lighter, and her six legs were thin and delicate, rather than strong and stout. Her hands were on her second set of legs, rather than her first, so she balanced herself differently than the semi-vertical Roson. My gaze was drawn to her eyes, impossibly large and intensely blue.
Ji must have noticed me staring, because he said, “That is a Nahara. Do not trouble yourself with her.”
“The other sentient race on this planet,” murmured Aviss in explanation.
“Greetings, Governor Ji,” I said. “We apologize for the intrusion.”
“It’s no trouble at all,” he said. The Nahara handed him a cup of something, and he took it. Then she scurried out of the room. I was a little disappointed to see her go.
“We only need to contact our Homeworld,” I said. “If you have the technology. I’m sure we could come up with something to trade.”
“I’m afraid to say we are not as advanced as you spacefaring races,” said Ji, settling down on one of the pillows. “I doubt we have anything you could use. But we do get Skrit-Na traders quite frequently, especially in the capitol. Perhaps they could help you.”
I exchanged looks with Aviss and Elit, and Ji laughed. I knew he could tell what we were thinking.
“They are a strange race, but I think they might offer you transport if you had something to trade,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but I don’t know that I can do anything else for you.”
“We could try that,” Elit said, in the Yeerk language. “Maybe they’ll take the shuttle in return. Or maybe they can sell us the parts to install a Z-space drive.”
Ji’s smiled strained a little.
“Thank you,” I said, turning back to him. “We will go to the capitol immediately.”
“Oh, there’s no rush,” he assured me. “You are welcome to stay and rest for a few days. I am sure you have an interesting story. What part of the galaxy are you from?”
“We are…Elit and I…are Hork-Bajir,” I said carefully. “Aviss is a human.”
The tension in the room was rising, but I was not sure why. Ji—did he know something? Did he suspect we were more than what we claimed to be?
“I wonder,” he said, “how three aliens came to be in combat with an Andalite Dome ship.”
“Well, we…” I began. Then I stopped.
Had I mentioned the Dome ship? I’d told the entire marketplace about the Andalites, but had I told them it was a Dome ship that attacked us?
Elit seemed to realize the same thing. He jabbed me with his ankle-blade, signaling me to keep talking.
“…we refused to let them board our craft and search for contraband, so they attacked us,” I said. “We barely escaped.”
The governor seemed satisfied with the story, so I began to relax a little. The Nahara female came back into the room.
“What business—” began Ji, but he interrupted himself with violent coughing. At first I thought it was nothing, but after a minute, it still had not stopped.
“Governor?” I asked in alarm.
Ji made a sound like he was trying to spit his internal organs out on the floor in front of us.
“Oh, please don’t die while we’re alone with you,” whimpered Aviss.
Ji slumped forward and fell silent. I hurried over and tried to search for any vital signs. I barely knew what to look for.
“Is he…?” asked Elit cautiously.
“Oh, he is dead,” said the Nahara.
We all looked up at her. I’d barely noticed her standing there by the door.
“You poisoned him,” I accused, looking up. “Why?”
“He would have done the same to you,” said the Nahara, waving one claw dismissively. “We know what you are. You wear those bodies, but they are not yours. You have not fooled anyone. The Enforcers are already on their way to deal with you.”
Elit tensed beside me, ready to spring. But the Nahara smiled down at me.
“If you will take me with you,” she added, “I can lead you to a safe place.”
I tore my eyes away from Ji’s body. “Alright,” I said. “Show us.”
“Is this a good idea?” asked Aviss nervously.
“It’s the only one we’ve got,” I said. “Elit, get ready to fight our way out. I don’t think the other Roson here are going to just let us leave.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about them,” said the Nahara, and she pushed the door open and hurried out into the hall. We followed after her, and I had just enough time to realize how oddly quiet the house now was before I glanced into one of the open rooms and saw the Roson bodies sprawled across the floor.
The Nahara glanced over her shoulder at me, but didn’t slow down. “Blood of the v’tyr in the drinks. It works quickly.”
“You poisoned the entire household.”
“Is that a question?” Like the gradual changing colors of a sunrise, the Nahara’s eyes shifted from yellow to a bright, bright orange. Later, I would learn that the color indicated deep smugness, but at the time it was just another mystery.
“What did you say your name was?” I asked.
“Osa Ren Ifhara,” she said. She opened another door that revealed the bright morning sky. In the street below, I could see other Roson, these ones armed with unfamiliar weapons that I did not want to test. And it looked like they were heading towards us.
“How fast can you run?” Osa Ren asked.
to be continued